Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Tishrei 5764 - October 23, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Tracing the Haunted Ruins of Europe -- A Journey from Italy to Holland

by E. Ehrentrau

Part II

The first part described travel through Italy and Switzerland. This part describes the trip through Germany, Belgium and Holland.


We began a long journey through the Schwartzvald, the Black Forest, which stretches over a vast area. To casual observers it may appear to be just a lovely green and innocent forest, but to those who remember the horror stories of the mass murder of Jews inside this forest the green of the trees assumes a black hue. This is where the Final Solution began. Here all those declared "undesirable to humanity," including the sick and elderly, were executed. How much evil can a place of green serenity contain? How many years later can the shadows of the trees pursue us? Very many years, without relenting!

We passed by large cities as well as small villages, rivers, castles and fortresses scattered across the mountains and a view that would unreservedly be called beautiful were it not in Germany.

We arrived in the city of Michelstadt, famous primarily for the tzaddik who grew up famous there, HaRav Yitzchok Aryeh Wormser, known as the Baal Shem of Michelstadt. The Baal Shem was born in 5528 (1768) and was a descendent of HaRav Eliyohu Loantz, known as the Baal Shem of Wormser, the first Ashkenazi "Baal Shem."

As a child the Baal Shem of Michelstadt became known as a tremendous prodigy, bright and diligent in his Torah study. As a youth he studied under the author of the Haflo'oh, and later under HaRav Nosson Adler of Frankfurt.

After marrying, he suffered tzaar giddul bonim and lost some of his children as well as his wife, leaving him alone with five children. Members of the Enlightenment circles in Michelstadt informed against him to the authorities, preventing his appointment as rov of the city. As a result of their reports, as well as miraculous deeds attributed to him, he was imprisoned for a short period.

Still within a year of the passing of his wife, he left the city for Mannheim. There he cured a severely mentally ill woman at the local hospital shortly after undertaking to help. From then on he was called the Baal Shem, a reference to his use of holy names and kabboloh to perform amazing deeds. He also gained fame as a godol beTorah, a tremendous genius who wrote numerous chiddushim in every area of Torah scholarship.

The notebooks he left behind contained the names of some 1,500 people who turned to him for brochos and advice. He would record the date of each conversation and after a few months or up to a year-and-a-half he would follow-up on the state of the sick person or person in need. Among those who sent requests for him to pray for them were the Chasam Sofer and the author of Chiddushei HaRim of Gur. Together with his prayers for sick individuals he would designate a shiur in the sick person's merit.

His lists included the exact amounts he received in the form of kesef pidyon and tzedokoh for his prayers, and the commitments he made to teach shiurim for the sake of those who sought his brochos. The number of shiurim he committed to teach is astounding, as well as the efficacy of his miracles and segulos through the power of the holy Torah.

The Baal Shem's son-in-law was R' Eliyohu Strauss, whose son was the famous Shmuel Strauss, who bought and founded the famous Chotzer Strauss in Jerusalem and was one of the followers of the Alter of Kelm. Chotzer Strauss became the home of the mussar greats who moved to Jerusalem. R' Shmuel's son-in-law was HaRav Yaakov Rosenheim, president and one of the founders of the World Agudas Yisroel.

In 5571 (1811) the Baal Shem returned to his hometown of Michelstadt and was officially asked to serve as rov.

During his final years he suffered sickness and pain, but did not stop giving his shiurim despite his difficult condition. His condition deteriorated drastically until on Rosh Hashanah 5608 (1848) he was so weak he could hardly speak. Nevertheless he asked to hear the tekios in his home. Afterwards he gave instructions for his funeral arrangements, demanding to be carried by hand and not on a wagon, as was the Reform custom.

Toward the end of Tzom Gedaliah the next day, after tefillas Minchoh, his soul departed at the age of 80. In 5700 (1940) the Nazis destroyed his gravestone, which his great-grandson replaced seven years later, inscribing the words, "Here lies the great genius of renown, R' Zekel Wormser, known as the Baal Shem of Michelstadt. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life." In 5759 (1999) his descendants erected a third gravestone, with the original inscription on one side and the above description on the reverse.

We went to the ancient cemetery to visit his grave, for he had an established reputation for bringing yeshuos and praying for Am Yisroel. Many heartfelt prayers were sent up to the Heavens, with tears dripping onto our siddurim, kvitlach read aloud and placed on the gravestone and candles lit to the side. We left the grave murmuring, "Ovinu Malkeinu, pesach shaarei Shomayim letefiloseinu." As we were still drying away the tears I added quietly, "Tehei hasho'oh hazos, she'as rachamim ve'eis rotzon milefonecho."


According to historical sources, Worms boasts one of the oldest Jewish communities not only in Germany, but in all of Europe.

Often referred to as "Vermaizo" in Hebrew texts, it claims Rashi among its illustrious former residents. We stopped at a place called Rashi Gate, which is the entrance to the ghetto and the Jewish area. We walked in silence on the cobblestone street and turned down a narrow street with a depression in one of the walls. According to legend Rashi's mother was walking down this street when a man on horseback tried to trample the obviously Jewish woman. With nowhere to escape on the narrow street she pressed against the wall and miraculously a depression formed in the wall where she was standing. There is indeed a hollow spot in the wall that can only be seen from up close.

Further down the street we followed a set of stairs down to Rashi's mikveh. We were only able to peep into the little alcove and the stairs leading to it. Of course there's no water and the door is shut tight and bolted.

Behind the mikveh is Rashi's beis knesses, the only remaining one in the area. It is well preserved and looks like it is opened only when Jewish visitors arrive. Alongside the beis knesses is a small room people say was Rashi's study. There is an antique wood chair and desk and a kisei shel Eliyohu made of stone. Afterwards we took our leave from the place that had great symbolic meaning to the Jewish people and now shu'olim hilchu bo-- German children play on the street's cobblestones.

On the entrance gate to the city's Jewish cemetery hangs a sign that reads, "The oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe." During the Holocaust the Nazis tried to harm it, but thanks to efforts by the Mayor of Worms, a Righteous Gentile, the cemetery went unscathed and remains intact to this day, revealing this kehilloh's great past.

In this age-old graveyard renowned rabbonim, tzaddikim and other Jews of repute were laid to rest. The story of the cemetery is the story of the glorious kehilloh once in Worms.

The local counsel established the place of rest for the Jewish dead outside the city walls, far from the ghetto and the municipal area. The Jews of Worms buried their dead in an open field. Soil from Eretz Yisroel, which they would place at the head of every deceased Jew, is said to have protected the cemetery from vandals.

Later, when a new wall was built around the entire city, the Jewish cemetery was included within its bounds for the first time. Once the cemetery was within the city limits it was harmed on several occasions, during wars waged between the princes and the cardinals. They would use gravestones to form fighting positions and dig trenches, which the soldiers used to pass from one wall to the other.

The goyim made the Jews' lives bitter and desecrated their graves once they were dead. The walls of the city are inlaid with gravestones from the Jewish cemetery.

Nearly 2,000 remaining gravestones are decipherable. The older they are, the simpler the inscriptions. A modest square tablet lists on one side the name of the deceased, a date and words of praise, all in loshon hakodesh. Meanwhile gravestones from the last few hundred years, mostly on the top of the hill, are much bigger. Some are made of marble, others of stone. The writing is in Hebrew and German, or just German. The simple tablets from earlier generations of pious German Jews are replaced by ornate family gravestones decorated with drawings. The traditional Hebrew inscriptions make way for florid German.

Among the many graves in Worms' historical cemetery is that of HaRav Meir of Rottenburg. On the slope of the cemetery just to the left of the gate is the grave of the Maharam of Rottenburg, who died in prison after refusing to be ransomed, in order to prevent the authorities from arresting other rabbonim for extortion purposes.

Alongside it lies the grave of Alexander Ziskind Wimpen, one of the leaders of the Frankfurt kehilloh, who ransomed the bones of the Maharam from the prison and brought them to burial in the cemetery of his hometown.

During pre-Holocaust times many Jews came to prostrate themselves on the grave of this gaon of Ashkenazi Jewry in halochoh, in his conduct and in his model of kiddush Hashem. Now fewer visitors arrive, but we could see the remains of candles that had been lit beside the grave and many little notes bearing requests for yeshu'oh for individuals and for all of Am Yisroel.

The years have taken their toll on the Maharam's gravestone, but after a bit of effort it was possible to make out all of the words. "This stands as a monument to the head of marono verabono, Meir ben HaRav R' Boruch, who was caught by the King of Rome on the fourth day of the month of Tammuz of the year 5046 and passed away in captivity on the 19th of Iyar of the year 5053 and could not be buried until the fourth of Adar 5067. May his soul be bound in the bond of life with the righteous of the world in Gan Eden, omen seloh."

The Maharam's responsa reflect his brilliance as a great halocho master, posek and moreh derech for all the kehillos of Germany and France. He founded several yeshivas, most notably Yeshivas Worms. He taught superb middos, mutual respect and courage in facing the princes and cardinals. He defended the poor against discrimination and instructed talmidei chachomim to forego their status in order to spare others from affront.

During periods of persecution from without and economic hardship from within, he followed in the footsteps of his rebbe, Rav Yechiel of Paris, who moved to Eretz Yisroel and directed German Jews to leave golus for Eretz Hakodesh. He also ruled that a father cannot prevent his son from moving to Eretz Yisroel--kovod ho'av vekovod haMokom, kovod haMokom kodem.

The Maharam set out on the journey with his wife and daughters and sons-in-law and all his possessions. Once they arrived in a secluded mountain town as Shabbos began, so they were forced to stay. Suddenly the evil Cardinal of Bazilo rode into town while traveling from Rome with a Jewish apostate named Kanofafa. They caught the Maharam and handed him over to King Rudolf.

He spent seven years imprisoned in Wasserburg Castle in Mainz and later in Anzisheim, where he passed away. He had served as rov of Wurzburg, Nuremberg, Mainz, Rottenburg and finally Worms.

While imprisoned he wrote a will that read, "When a person resolves to sanctify the Name and to give over his soul, whatever is done to him, whether he is stoned, burned, buried alive [or] hanged, does not hurt him at all. And know this truth: there is no man on earth who would not cry out if his little finger were to touch fire; even if he tried to restrain himself he would be unable. Yet many people [who] give themselves over for burning and execution to sanctify the Name do not cry out in any way."

Leaving the ancient Worms cemetery, somberly we whispered, "May it be Your will, He Who Hears Weeping, that You collect our tears in and spare us from all decrees, for to You Alone our eyes are raised."

These districts are dead in terms of the Jewish presence, but they are alive in the gemora, in the Chumash, in the mouths of lomdim young and old. This spirit cannot be broken. Rashi, the Maharam of Rottenburg, the Maharil and his minhagim all remain alive and their lips continue to speak from the grave.

We did not spend the night in Germany. How can one sleep there when the spirit of the Jews cries out? As if something draws you away from there the moment you finish your errand there. A voice calls out from within telling you to flee. Perhaps this comes from hidden fears, or loathing and residual anger. Germany, do not cover their blood. As we say in Av Horachamim, "Harninu goyim amo ki dam avodov yikom, venokom yoshiv letzorov." ("O nations, sing the praise of His people, for He will avenge His servants' blood and He will bring retribution upon His foes." Devorim 32:43). Hashem will not remain passive and silent . . .


From Germany, traveling a seemingly familiar road, we went on to Belgium after spending the night in Luxembourg, a country consisting of a large city and several small towns.

After a relatively short drive we arrived in the town of Han. There we visited the most beautiful stalactite cave in the area, called Han Sur Las. The caves are reached by riding (that is, jolting along) on a special, open railway car on tracks passing through trees and patches of grass that add to the atmosphere of the trip.

The cave itself is quite large with a long walking tour. Stalactites hang down all along the way and some of them are illuminated with little lights that, together with the damp air of the cave, create an atmosphere of mystery, as if we were roaming through another world. Visitors exit the cave on boats that float on the Las River, which passes through the cave and continues flowing outside. Toward the end of the excursion a fake cannon sounds, echoing through the walls of the cavern, generally startling the visitors and designed primarily to leave a lasting impression on tourists.

From the town of Han we continued onward to a large, attractive town called Namur where we went up to the Citadel, a panoramic viewpoint at the top of a high fortress overlooking the town and the two rivers passing through it.

We then traveled on toward the capital city of Brussels, where we spent three hours in a huge traffic jam due to an accident in one of the tunnels that caused congestion throughout the area. When we finally arrived in Brussels, we toured the city by bus to see its splendid architecture.

We saw the parliament buildings, the government offices, the Hall of Culture, high-tech office buildings, European Union buildings and the Royal Botanical Gardens. We also got a glimpse of one of the king's palaces, which gave us some idea of how much money had gone into its external beauty. The meticulous, sculpted gardens surrounding the palace and the ornate walls and gates could only belong to aristocracy or royalty. We also stopped to see the well-known Atomium Building and after seeing a few more buildings in the immense city we drove on to Antwerp.

After a short ride around the large city the passengers on the bus started crying out, "Look, chareidim!" "There's a couple still in their sheva brochos; he's wearing a streimel," "Look at the children returning from cheder" and "Here are some Beis Yaakov girls."

We were very excited to see chareidim here in a foreign land, not tourists like us but local residents of a neighborhood not unlike chareidi neighborhoods in Eretz Yisroel. The bus drove around a few of the Jewish streets then dropped us off at Haufis, an upscale restaurant known for its high standards of kashrus.

While dinner was being served HaRav Pinchos Kornfeld, of Antwerp's chareidi kehilloh, arrived especially to deliver a talk. He told us about community life in Antwerp since World War II, the problems encountered in setting up a strict kashrus system, building educational institutions, which rabbonim led the kehilloh over the years and who heads the kehilloh today. Of course he also mentioned their esteemed rov, the Gavad of Antwerp HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth, zt'l.

In response to our question as to who has taken his place he said nobody can replace HaRav Kreiswirth! He was universally accepted, got along with everyone, was not a political figure, would go to every beis knesses and would speak amiably with everybody and had no adversaries. Thus replacing him is no simple matter, he explained, for today people who have achieved such greatness in both Torah and middos are hard to find. He added a few stories of his own in which he was privileged to witness HaRav Kreiswirth's gadlus firsthand.

While describing the local educational facilities and how Bais Yaakov was built, as a side note Rav Kornfeld mentioned his niece, Rebbetzin Tamar Steinman, o'h, who had worked at a teacher during her time in Antwerp before she married the Rosh Yeshiva, shlita.


We woke up to a pleasant morning in Holland, the land of tulips. After breakfast we drove to downtown Amsterdam, got off the bus near the downtown train station opposite the port and walked down the Jewish street to the Portuguese beis knesses, the largest, most beautiful beis knesses in Europe. The broad building exudes a feeling of oldness and inspires reverence.

To this day, electric lights have not been installed. Instead, light is provided by 613 candleholders containing wax and tallow candles. The beis knesses has seating for 10,000 people, but only three minyanim are held per week, all on Shabbos. The furniture is made of jacaranda wood, which is dark brown. Construction on the beis knesses was completed in Av 5435 (1675).

The aron hakodesh has no paroches but is covered with tapestries adorned with gilded decorations. The seats are arranged in parallel rows facing one another and the seat back of every bench has a candle. The floor of the beis knesses is made of wood and covered with sand, in accordance with the Dutch custom, to absorb the dampness from the wood and the dirt from the shoes of the congregants.

There are two women's galleries facing one another and extending the length of the sidewalls. The community leaders sit beneath the northern gallery. Until the end of the War the beis knesses had a choir, but today all that remains is the choir leader's podium, built one hundred years ago.

Next to the aron kodesh stands a fabulous chuppah made entirely of jacaranda wood and ready to be taken outside when weddings are held.

We left and continued walking around the crowded streets of the city. In Holland the streets have one lane for cars and trucks and buses, one lane for bicycles (marked with a bicycle painted on the asphalt every few meters) and one lane for trolleys.

In Holland, the Dutch bicycles are a popular means of transportation. Both large cities and small towns have bicycle parking lots--even multi-level parking lots where somehow everyone is able to locate his own bike among the thousands parked there! It's nice to see people of all ages, including chareidim with rabbinical posts and respectable businessmen, all riding on bikes. The locals warned us not to stand in the bicycle lane for a single moment, since it angers cyclists greatly.

After walking a few blocks we arrived at the flower market, a street with numerous booths selling flowers of every color and description, singly, by the bouquet, bulbs for planting, plants, potted plants and flowers and a huge variety of Dutch souvenirs. Flowers look nicer in Holland.

We continued walking through the bustling downtown streets until we reached the central square, called Dam Square. Across the street we saw the Amsterdam Stock Exchange Building. From there, we crossed the street toward the port where we boarded a small boat. During the hour-long tour of the city's canals we had time to think about the Jews living in Amsterdam before the War. Dutch flowers plucked from the ground.

The Jews who were taken from their homes and through these same canals for the last time to the other side of the city, beyond the realm of the living. The Jews who were accustomed to making a respectable living in commerce in Holland's large port cities, the flowing water mocking them as they were taken away to oblivion; when they were taken away forever the waters of the canals continued flowing quietly as if nothing had happened. The waters had nothing to say as Amsterdam's Jewish population sank away among the canals.

Zaanse Schans is a small, picturesque windmill town with little green houses, a lot of grass and greenery, canals surrounding the houses and many windmills used to grind spices. We went into a factory that manufactures wooden clogs and were shown how the shoes are molded. The factory sells clogs in every size and shape you could ask for, in every color of the rainbow, and of course everyone who enters the factory leaves with several pairs of shoes as gifts and souvenirs. In another part of the town we went to a farm where rounds of cheese are made, but here we could not buy anything, for obvious reasons.

We continued ambling down the walkways among green houses with tidy yards, among the spinning windmills and the canals overflowing with water and boats. The town is so picturesque and serene, life is so calm and pleasant, that someone roaming through its streets totally forgets what a noisy city even looks like.

Next we visited a famous fishing town called Markan. There, too, we saw many little green houses with well-kept yards full of plants and flowers. Wary not to disturb the prevailing peace and quiet we spoke in hushed tones as we walked through the idyllic town. The local residents wear traditional Dutch garb and, to the tourists passing through, it appears as if time stood still here. The people look as if they don't have a single care in the world. At the edge of the town is a harbor with fishing boats and sailboats of every size.

After taking in some clean, country air we returned to Amsterdam where we went to the home of HaRav Shatz, the head of the city's kollel, American-born, who lived for many years in Eretz Yisroel, who together with his wife does much for the city's chareidi community and welcomes guests from around the world. We were received there very amiably and as we stepped into their home we were thrilled at the sight of a large picture of the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, decorating the living room, evidence of appreciation for godolei hador among Diaspora Jews. In his home we heard interesting stories from HaRav Aharonson about Amsterdam's Jews past and present and then Mrs. Slyt told us about rabbonim who lived in Amsterdam over the years.

The first Jewish settlers in Amsterdam were primarily large merchants who developed the country through trade with the Orient and their countries of origin, Spain and Portugal. Jews took part in founding the Bank of Amsterdam. In 1805 the Bank of Lissa & Kann was established, quickly becoming one of Europe's leading financial institutions.

The famous international bank owned by Lippman, Rosenthal & Associates was founded in 1859 and remained in operation until the Nazi takeover. The Nazi authorities confiscated the bank and Dutch Jews were ordered to report their monetary holdings and bonds. The Nazis robbed the Jews of all their assets, which totaled $500 million in gold.

When the Germans took over Holland the Holocaust descended upon the Jews of Amsterdam. Only a small number of the exiles ever returned. Most of them were killed in the gas chambers. When the Germans were eventually driven out of the country, only 20 percent of the pre-War population remained in Amsterdam. The Dutch did not cooperate with the Germans and there were many Righteous Gentiles among them.

We drove to the city of Harlem to the home of the Tan-Baum family, a Catholic family of Righteous Gentiles who saved many Jews during the Second World War until the Nazis eventually caught them. None of the family members survived, but their home was made into a museum to commemorate their efforts and a woman volunteer tells visitors how the family hid Jews in the attic, and about the signal they arranged to update Jews. Under their home is a clock shop (which is still there) and if the big clock was displayed it was a sign they could enter the house. If the big clock was not hanging it was a sign the area was in danger and Jews should keep away from the house.

For years the Tan-Baums and their two daughters managed to hide thousands of Jews in their home and to help them flee to safe areas, until informers reported their activities to the Nazi authorities, who arrested them. Most of the family died in Nazi jails.

After surveying the background history the volunteer guide took us to the room where the Jews hid, which was reached by passing through an opening in the back of a wardrobe. The opening, just large enough for people to go in and out, was also used to send in food. An opening was made in the wall between the hidden room and the rest of the home to allow visitors to see how small the hideout is and imagine how difficult it was to remain there for an extended period before fleeing for safety. The Tan-Baum family surely received its just reward in Heaven along with all other Righteous Gentiles. (The volunteer guide is also a Christian with a fondness for Jews. Perhaps her forefathers were Righteous Gentiles, as well.)

As we stepped out into the bustling street we looked at the buildings nearby, wondering if they once housed the collaborators, may their names be blotted out, who brought the rescue efforts to an end--or perhaps other unknown families that provided a safe haven for Jews. These contemplations were joined by other thoughts that flit through the heads of the post-Holocaust generation. The musings of a generation whose understanding of the Holocaust is based only on stories.

From Harlem we continued on to the city of Dan-Hague, where we stopped to see the Hague World Court, which the Dutch refer to as the Palace of Peace. From the outside it really does look like a palace and the flowers and vegetation surrounding it indeed create a sense of calm and peace.

A short drive brought us to Madurodam, a town with a park called Little Holland that stretches over a huge area. The park has miniature displays of everything in the country, a fabulous work of creativity where one can marvel for hours at how natural the displays appear. We saw Schipol Airport with its control tower, parked airplanes, a plane on the takeoff runway, parking lots full of cars, passenger trains on tracks and bridges, boats cruising on the canals, raised highways, fishing and sailing harbors, royal palaces, the Portuguese beis knesses, bridges, waterfalls, famous buildings and many other fabulous sights--and of course many, many flowers in a variety of colors.

The tour of Madurodam was indeed an appropriate way to conclude our visit in Holland, providing a sort of review of all we had seen in this splendid country. From there we went to Schipol Airport, the third largest airport in the world, and after ten days packed with experiences we headed to our longed for destination: Back home to Eretz Yisroel!


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